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Respond, not reform

Published Feb 01, 2015 12:27am
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THERE are two kinds of bomb blasts in Pakistan: the kind that happen in places no one cares about and that result in nothing happening — immediately; and the other kind that happen in places people do care about and that result in nothing happening — in due course, after an initial kerfuffle.

There are also two kinds of crises in Pakistan: the kind that happen in places no one cares about and that lead to nothing happening — immediately; and the other kind that happen in places people do care about that lead to nothing happening — in due course, after an initial kerfuffle.

Sometimes, the gods like to mess with us and send us several of everything at the same time. So, we’ve had Peshawar and now Shikarpur. We’ve also had electricity and then petrol and now electricity again. And soon we’ll have some other attack and another crisis. And through it all, some folk will rage, others will shrug; some will run out of money, others will grow rich; some will bury a relative, others will get on with life — immediately or in due course.

Sometimes, things do catch up with you. In the places where it matters. Even then it just seems to add up to waiting for more.

Take petrol. So much time spent arguing over it, so much deconstruction of it — but did anyone mention that the shortage was because of that mother of all screw-ups, electricity? Every explanation, demand or supply side, so breathlessly offered by political apologists and overnight analysts came down to a version of ‘PSO ran out of money’. But because PSO is seemingly now always on the verge of running out of cash, it wasn’t necessary to explain why.

Except PSO is always running out of cash and credit and it’s mostly running out of cash and credit because of that mother of all screw-ups, electricity — euphemistically known as circular debt.


Pakistan is broken, but it isn’t broken enough to incentivise anyone in power to really fix anything.


Roughly, a long-term electricity crisis on one side of the energy pie eventually travelled to the other side of the energy pie and caused a disruption in the petrol scheme of things. Which isn’t very surprising. Because that’s what happen when you let epic crises drag out endlessly — in the financial world anyway, ’cause someone always has to get paid there.

Then again maybe it was better that few wanted to talk about a broken electricity sector in the midst of a petrol crisis — because that would have created two circuses instead of one.

Incensed folk would have been jumping up and down demanding to also know WHY THIS GOVERNMENT CAN’T FIX ELECTRICITY. An inane question that would have been met with inane answers like: the government is incompetent and doesn’t deserve to be in power or the government is corrupt and diverting mega deals to its favourites.

None of that would answer a more basic, incentives question: if the last general election was essentially a referendum on electricity, then why hasn’t this government learned that lesson?

Surely, when there’s a massive prize to be had — winning consecutive elections — for doing something that the last guy couldn’t do, the new guy should be doing whatever it takes to grab that prize.

Including crony capitalism and sweetheart energy deals — because once electricity is flowing and flowing at a reasonable price, few voters would complain. But the government is somehow managing to draw flak for crony capitalism AND not getting better at managing the electricity sector.

What gives? We seem to be in a state where we’re discovering the alternative to a winner-takes-all incentive: if everyone fails, then nobody really loses — among the politicians anyway.

If the electricity crisis began under Musharraf (army — best organised political party in the country) then worsened under Zardari (PPP) and now is infecting other sectors under Nawaz (PML) and eventually gets passed on to Imran (PTI) or Raheel (army) and those guys don’t fix it either — then, collectively, there’s nothing wrong with the system, right?

Essentially, sometimes incentives aren’t what they seem to be.

Take this madressah funding business. Folk are jumping up and down yelling for Saudi, and Gulf, funding to be cut off. But ‘foreign funding of madressahs is stoking extremism’ is the equivalent of ‘India is causing Balochistan’: a story we tell ourselves to feel better. It feels good to bash the noxious Saudis, but it’s not really their money that’s keeping the mosque-madressah-social welfare network afloat here — it’s Pakistanis themselves.

The mosque-madressah-social welfare network has created an economy of its own and even if you could somehow turn away the Saudi inflows, that economy would simply find alternative sources of funding locally. But nobody wants to talk about that because everybody knows nobody is willing to do anything about that — or can.

Drill down, poke around on the surface, pick these issues or any another issue — over and over again, once you strip away the silliness, you’ll find eventually the same answer: Pakistan is broken, but it isn’t broken enough to incentivise anyone in power to really fix anything. Or to put it another way: the state won’t reform, but it does respond — and as long as it can respond, it doesn’t need to reform.

We ran out of petrol, Nawaz made sure we had it in a couple of days. Why reform when you can respond? Especially since no one cares the short-term petrol crisis was a long-term result of the electricity crisis.

A school with the word ‘army’ in its name was attacked in Peshawar, the army went into overdrive to get those behind it and rolled out some populist stuff — hangings, military courts — to appease its base, the army itself. Why reform when you can respond?

Folk yelling about reforms here are usually missing the point: the system hasn’t yet created the incentives for the system to produce solutions. Until then, responses are what everyone will have to live with.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn February 1st, 2015

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